Last week, after Michael Isikoff obtained a 16-page memorandum detailing the legal opinions that underpin the Obama administration's program of targeted assassinations -- a program whose fatal purview extends to American citizens -- the grand debate over drone strikes and executive power and how the checks and balances work in this post-9/11 world were newly inflamed. Which is great for ratings, I guess, but we all know that John Brennan is going to get confirmed as the head of the CIA, newly re-inflamed concerns or not, right? Great. For a minute there I was worried that you might start expecting lawmakers to take this stuff seriously.
Because I’ll tell you what: They do not. Not even a little bit.
Of course, you may have read reports from the Associated Press on Sunday that indicated that these killer drone programs were drawing new "scrutiny" from lawmakers. Here's Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) talking about all the new oversight on which he'll be insisting:
We are in a different kind of war. We're not sending troops. We're not sending manned bombers. We're dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe. We have to strike a new constitutional balance with the challenges we face today.
Durbin has fundamentally accepted a number of brand-new premises in advance. Those quaint notions of checks and balances and Congress' explicit role in declaring war? They don't show up. Instead, he says that we need to find "a new constitutional balance." We have to make things easier, through a more innovative approach to, say, due process? The same way a drone makes reaching out across the sky and killing a guy easier, we need new synergy, it seems, between the stuff we are able to do with new high-tech weapons and what we are legally allowed to do, in order to run our war on terror with the appropriate efficiency.
And keep in mind, Durbin is supposed to be from the party that does not cotton to the neo-conservative point of view. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was perfectly willing to drop his reflexive resistance to everything the guy who beat him in 2008 does and insist that establishing some sort of "drone court" -- in which it's judicially decided whether or not an American citizen can be blown to smithereens by a robot -- would be far too onerous on the president. He'd just prefer that the Pentagon and not the CIA be the bureaucratic redoubt of all killer drone decisions because Congress would have greater "oversight" of the Pentagon. (This is the same Congress that's terrified that the coming "sequester" might actually limit the Pentagon's budgetary bloat.)
No one actually seems to care about the whole, hoary notion of American citizens having inalienable rights. And few want to ask about whether or not assassinating loosely-defined "militants" with drones isn't just making it easy for terrorists to recruit newer and more dedicated members. But if you think that the media is going to press the matter, well, think again. On "Meet The Press" the Sunday after the "white paper" memorandum was disclosed, David Gregory didn't ask Durbin for his position on the matter of executive power. He didn't hold his feet to the fire on the controversy. He didn't wade into the thorny constitutional issues.
Instead, he just read an editorial from the Wall Street Journal aloud, in which the editors contend that the "war on terror" requires the president to have "strong executive power" that "includes the ability" to "independently kill people associated with al-Qaeda as he sees fit" -- including American citizens -- and that this was just "political reality." And rather than invite Durbin to join the conversation, agree with the Wall Street Journal's take or contend otherwise, Gregory simply asked: "Is that the debate we ought to have?"
Yes, folks, that's "meeting the press" in 2013: where journalists just question whether or not people should be doing all this questioning. Such robust scrutiny! It makes me feel pretty confident, knowing that people like David Gregory are keeping watch over our politics.
Meanwhile in Yemen, there was once a cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, who got into an argument with some people from al Qaeda after he publicly denounced the terrorist death cult. There this brave cleric was, standing outside, arguing with the people whose nihilism he'd strenuously inveighed against, when out of the sky came a drone strike, killing the lot of them. It would not seem, at first blush, to be particularly helpful to use drone attacks to incinerate people who preach against al Qaeda. But I'm sure I am overthinking things. Omelettes and eggs, after all. Best not to question it.